Consumer Electronics & Appliance News, Reviews & Information.

05
Jul 12

Does Microsoft have what it takes to become your media hub?

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Xbox 360 with KinectWith the dust from E3 2012 now fully settled, there’s one system that has our full attention: the Xbox 360. Microsoft’s keynote revealed a number of new features for the popular console. Taken individually, these updates are pretty cool, but as a whole, they paint an even more intriguing picture: Microsoft wants the Xbox 360 to be your home entertainment hub.

To be sure, that’s a tough market to capture, with streaming-ready flatscreens, Blu-ray players, the PlayStation 3, and of course, the Apple TV juggernaut all vying for the position. But by repurposing the Xbox 360, Microsoft could easily become a top contender.

It all starts with the new SmartGlass system. SmartGlass is essentially second-screen technology designed to work with your current phone or tablet (including iPads and iPhones), rather than requiring you to purchase a new device. While watching a movie or playing a game on your TV, you can control the action with your handheld, and even stream media from your mobile device to your main system, taking on AirPlay head-on. But unlike most similar set-ups, SmartGlass is two-way communication, so your portable screen can also show you supplemental content without disrupting what’s playing on the main screen. For a more detailed look at SmartGlass, check out this write-up by my colleague Adam.

Adding fuel to our speculation that Microsoft is trying to be the center of your home theater are the expanded Kinect capabilities that Microsoft announced, more specifically, better voice integration. Along with SmartGlass, voice controls, already integrated into some Xbox functions (movie watching, for example), make it easier and more convenient to control your Xbox than with any other system. Since Microsoft announced a number of new games at E3 with expanded voice capabilities, and since game improvements often drive the 360′s home theater developments, expect Kinect’s voice integration to keep getting better and deeper.

It gets better, though: The Xbox 360 will finally have a built in browser, building on the already-stellar LIVE service. This console version of Internet Explorer will use Kinect’s voice recognition to make search intuitive and easy. Having a full-fledged browser in your home entertainment system without requiring a separate component is sure to help give Microsoft a leg up in the competition for living room shelf space.

What may end up tilting the balance in Microsoft’s favor is the glue holding all this together: Xbox LIVE. Widely considered the best network for online gaming (since the days of the original Xbox), in the past two years LIVE has undergone a dramatic shift in focus. It’s still the best place to play games online, but Microsoft has put an increasing importance on media streaming. Today, Xbox LIVE members can access the Zune store, Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, VUDU, ESPN, UFC, and nearly 20 other top content sources across a range of categories. They’ve also already integrated a Bing search function on the Xbox that allows you to find media locally or through some streaming sources.

As you can tell, there’s already a lot of overlap between the streaming capabilities of the 360 and Apple TV. Microsoft recently announced the addition of even more content partners for LIVE, including top sports games, giving them potentially the richest selection of streaming content on the market.

Microsoft is also set to replace Zune Music with Xbox Music, a service that will give subscribers streaming access to over 30 million songs, again encroaching on Apple’s dominant iTunes.

These reveals taken by themselves are pretty exciting, but as a whole, they make it pretty clear that Microsoft is ready to take it to Apple for the right to be the center of your home entertainment universe. And we think that’s definitely worth watching.

What do you think? Is the Xbox ready to be your home-theater hub, or is Apple TV still the better bet? Share your thoughts below.



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